Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Week of 7.3.09

Transcript: "Obama's Border Fence" & "Ocean Tipping Point?"

brancaccio: The Obama Administration is putting the finishing touches on a border fence with Mexico that congress approved back in 2006 in a victory for immigration hardliners. Yet the project is making some folks in south Texas very angry, and lots of them think the multi-billion dollar fence won't work. Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producers Kathleen Hughes and Fae Moore have our report.

HINOJOSA: Meet Dr Eloisa Tamez.... She's a professor of nursing at the University of Texas in Brownsville -just over the border from Mexico. The Tamez family's ownership of this land dates way back, before the American Revolution—when they gained this little plot of land from the king of Spain. But now the federal government has added something new to her 18 foot high steel fence that passes right through her property.

TAMEZ: We came from pioneer families that received a land grant so we could work the land. And we have been working this land for generations to carve a life out of it.

HINOJOSA: This border wall was begun during the Bush administration—a victory for the hardliners in the immigration debate. But far from putting on the brakes, President Barack Obama has ordered the fence to be completed. And that has many border residents up in arms.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration. But they can't have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it.

HINOJOSA: To head up the Department of Homeland Security, President Obama chose Janet Napolitano, the pragmatic governor of a border state, Arizona. Before she was named to the office she had indicated that a fence is little more than a speed bump in the desert.

NAPOLITANO: As I often say, show me a 50 foot wall, I'll show you a 51 foot ladder

HINOJOSA: As governor she pushed for more border patrol, but also for immigration reform including a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers and a smoother path to legalization. But so far the Obama Administration has steered clear of talk about the fence. Back in Brownsville, that has the university, the city, and hundreds of landowners, whose property is being cut up by the border fence, very upset.

TAMEZ: I believe they thought they could come down here to South Texas and just trample all over us.

HINOJOSA: Consider the Loop family. For five generations they have worked this lush farmland...nearly 1000 acres of golden sunflowers, robust citrus, and lots and lots of watermelons. The Loops' farm runs alongside the Rio Grande River. In Texas the river forms the natural border between the U.S. and Mexico.

LOOP: It's not even a stones' throw. It's about half stone's throw. That's Mexico.
If you can look at the bank there you can see down the bank where they come up over the shore. The grass is all beat down. For some reason or another they left their clothes here.

HINOJOSA: Leonard Loop says he's lost count of the number of times he's called border patrol reporting that immigrants were on his land, poaching his watermelons and other crops. So imagine his surprise when he discovered that almost 800 acres of the privately held Loop farmland would be walled off, south of the fence. That's 75 percent of the family farm, relegated to a stretch of no man's land between the government's fence and the Rio Grande.

So that means that this entire area here which you own a lot of...

LOOP: Yeah.

HINOJOSA: This is gonna be behind.

LOOP: The wall.

HINOJOSA: The wall.

LOOP: Yes.

HINOJOSA: When homeland security asked the loops to sign away rights to their land for the fence, they said no way.

DEBBIE LOOP: You know, they were gonna fence my son and his wife and their three daughters inside the levee. And—and I said the—"I'm not signing anything at this point. Nothing. This is not possible."

HINOJOSA: So the government used the power of eminent domain and condemned their property. Now with the fence going up on these levees, the Loops have something to say to the federal government.

LOOP: We are being made to pay for the mistakes that our president, our congress and our senators have made. For 25 years these people have been coming over this border. And they have done nothing but let them keep coming.

HINOJOSA: Congress has tried to fix the immigration problem but major immigration reform has already died 4 times over the past decade. Out of the rubble of failed initiatives emerged a victory for the hardliners. In 2006, President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing construction of a barrier between the United States and Mexico. You might imagine that the fence, would be one continuous barrier running across the entire 2000 mile's not. It's 700 miles worth of short fence sections. Fences that will stop and start, leaving huge gaps in between. Like many border residents, the Loops believe the fence won't work...especially when they see where the gaps are

LOOP: Straight across the way the crow flies you have about 12 miles of nothing. No fence, no anything. Do as you please.

HINOJOSA: Leonard Loop showed us a marker at end of his property where the fence will stop abruptly. It's one of those planned gaps: the government will leave this field right on the border, wide open. ...for more than 12 miles there will be no fence at all.

LOOP: Actually, people can come up to this fence and walk around it and be home free unless they got sensors or cameras or something here.

HINOJOSA: We caught up with Tom Rudd, who runs the Brownsville Border Patrol. Inside local headquarters sits a bank of screens where activity along the border can be monitored. Border patrol agents say the fence has been a huge help in areas where it's already gone up.

RUDD: Now, if this guy's here and someone just crossed and there's a fence here, well, he's—it's gonna be almost a 90 percent chance or 99 percent chance that he's gonna get him because the fence is there. So, you got the manpower. Then you have the technology. And you'll have the infrastructure.

HINOJOSA: Rudd is the patrol agent in charge of 23 miles of border in and around Brownsville. He's expecting a total of nine miles of fence segments. The segments, Rudd says, will act like funnels, pushing immigrants into areas where his agents will be waiting to capture them.

TAMEZ: The reason the border patrol gives for having chosen this parts where the wall is built is because they say that when the illegal immigrants cross over they blend in with the community.

HINOJOSA: But Eloisa Tamez can't understand how her sparsely populated community offers more opportunities for hiding or blending in than a much larger gated community just eight miles down the road. The River Bend Resort will have no fence at all.

DEL BOSQUE: What I got was the runaround.

HINOJOSA: Melissa Del Bosque is an investigative reporter for the Texas Observer. She spent more than a year trying to track down answers about the fence

DEL BOSQUE: I went from agency to agency within Homeland Security. Department of Justice, Customs and Border Protection.

HINOJOSA: Del Bosque took a look at part of the government's plan for the border areas that included high tech electronic surveillance to provide a virtual wall in the stretches without a physical fence. The government contracted with the Boeing Corporation to build it. But the company's first effort at a virtual fence failed. One big problem.....the government accountability office reported that the technology was "designed and developed with minimal input from the intended operators"—in other words, Boeing made a system for the border patrol without consulting the border patrol. Now Boeing is trying again, and even though the new technology has not been proven to work, the Obama Administration is planning to complete the virtual fence for the remaining 1300 miles of an estimated cost of nearly 7 billion dollars. And what about the decisions on where to construct the physical fence?

DEL BOSQUE: Nobody down here knows along the border, none of the land owners know why my property is being destroyed and my neighbors' isn't, for instance.

HINOJOSA: Del Bosque says the lack of information comes from a lack of accountability. Deep within Homeland Security lies an office called Secure Border Initiative, largely made up of private contractors—the biggest is Boeing.

DEL BOSQUE: And, in some cases, they were overseeing subcontractors in the same contracts that they were supposed to be—running.

HINOJOSA: So, wait, so you're saying that you've uncovered that the Secure Border Initiative, which is housed in Washington, which is supposed to be a government office, is actually being operated by contractors? By corporate people?

DEL BOSQUE: Yeah. I mean, this is—like an unprecedented outsourcing of—of government functions.

HINOJOSA: And none of these corporations have to respond to any American taxpayer, as to what they're doing and why?

DEL BOSQUE: No. Unh-uh.

HINOJOSA: Because they're a private company?

DEL BOSQUE: Right. Right. And if you—and if I call them, or—or you call them and—and ask them a question, they'll refer you to Homeland Security.

HINOJOSA: All in all, Homeland Security has paid almost 2 billion for the fence. But Eloisa Tamez was offered less than $14,000 for her land ....non -negotiable.

TAMEZ: But the people that are impacted are the poor. The low income Mexican American families here along the river. The farmers, who worry about - that's they're livelihood.

HINOJOSA: For the Loop family farm, the government hasn't even worked out details about how the family will get access to the hundreds of acres cut off by the fence.

LOOP: What happens if I ever want to sell —something is on this side and the rest is over here. Without a gate, nobody is going to buy it. It'd be worthless. But that doesn't seem to make any difference to them. They say, "oh you can still get to our property."

HINOJOSA: Eloisa Tamez had hoped that President Obama would bring a new approach. When Obama, as a candidate, visited Brownsville in February 2008, Tamez made a personal request. A reporter captured their meeting in this photo.

TAMEZ: And I said I need for you to stop the wall, stop the border wall. And then he said the one here at the University? Because I'm sure he had heard about it by then, and I said "that one, and the one in my backyard."

HINOJOSA: but the plan went forward. The university has a fence. And Eloisa Tamez got the 18 foot steel wall in her backyard. Tamez says she voted for President Obama but now she's disappointed in him.

TAMEZ: He has failed, he has failed us, he has not only failed us but he has abandoned us. Abandoned us. I mean, the same policies continue non-stop. Non-stop.

BRANCACCIO: While we're talking cross-border issues here, how about global warming? A new U.S. government report is full of grim forecasts: more rain in the northeast, hotter weather in DC and the south, more drought in the southwest. And it gets worse. We've been looking into problems with the world's oceans. Scientists have been gathering data which suggests we humans have set up the oceans for sudden change, and that could bring unwelcome change in all of our lives. Steve McCarthy and Fae Moore produced our report.

These extraordinary images depict the northwest Eifuku Volcano. It's actually underwater....more than 5000 feet below the surface of the pacific ocean. What's boiling out of these underwater chimneys is concentrated super heated carbon dioxide....the same stuff that comes out of tailpipes and smokestacks.
Around these vents of carbon dioxide, ocean life has been transformed. Scientists found that the shells of mussels are much thinner and not as healthy as mussels in regular seawater. This is a natural phenomenon - but it offers insight to a very unnatural condition. These mussels show how rising levels of man made CO2 could have devastating effects for various species of marine life...and possibly for the rest of us on the planet.
How exactly is global warming changing the world's oceans? Dr. Ruth Curry of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has been collecting data for years.

CURRY: Well, the oceans cover 75 percent of the earth. They interact with the atmosphere and they basically set the stage for climate—and for weather. When you start to change something as big as the ocean in as big a way as we're doing it. Warming it up, acidifying it, melting all the ice, you're gonna change fundamentally how the climate system works. That is something we all should be really concerned about.

BRANCACCIO: Curry is a senior research specialist at Woods Hole, which let us aboard one of their scientific vessels—the Oceanus—as it set out for a voyage.

CURRY: It's only been in the last decade or two that the idea of the deep ocean changing has even gained some—viability. In other words, people thought that the deep ocean was static for the longest time. Not that it didn't move. But, that it didn't change. And that is something that has definitely been shown to be wrong in our thinking.

BRANCACCIO: What worries scientists like Curry is the danger that global warming could set off unpredictable chain reactions in the seas....that human activity could alter entire ocean currents, alter the chemistry of the water, and wipe out a wide variety of marine life. Take the fact that global temperatures have gone up just a degree centigrade over the last century. Some take solace in how that rise has been so gradual. But scientists say it's been gradual in large part because the oceans have been sucking up a lot of the extra heat. It's like the way a paper towel blots up water. And like a paper towel, eventually things get saturated and we could be approaching a time when the ocean hits the limit.

CURRY: We've been aware of global warming for several decades now. We haven't taken any substantive action. And we're now nearing what—many scientists would call tipping points. And the best example of that, I think, is the arctic sea ice.

BRANCACCIO: One of the reasons the ocean can store so much energy says Curry is because of the ice at both poles. And here's the thing: the presence of ice in the ocean allows the water to take up much more heat. Policymakers having trouble coming to grips with global warming, might want to try a simple experiment.

CURRY: Unlike most experiments that we film on TV, this is something you can do at home.

BRANCACCIO: Call it our little "ice bath experiment" and it will, says Curry, show how ice buffers our climate system...until it hits a tipping point.

CURRY: So I've just got a beaker here and put fresh water into it and ice cubes. And we've been taking its temperature.

BRANCACCIO: And we're gonna pretend, in this model, the water's the ocean, the ice is ice in the ocean.

CURRY: The arctic sea ice.

BRANCACCIO: Arctic sea ice. And the heat that we're going to apply to this ice water-

CURRY: Is global warming.

BRANCACCIO: —is global warming.

CURRY: And you're gonna help me with this. You're gonna read off temperatures every 30 seconds. I'll type the temperatures in and we'll make a plot of what goes—what happens.

CURRY: Okay. All right. Now, let's go ahead and turn on the heat.

BRANCACCIO: All right.

CURRY: Go to high.


CURRY: High heat, yeah. Build up of greenhouse gases was very sudden. This hot plate is enough to make water boil.

BRANCACCIO: All right. Okay, all right, we're at one degree at two minutes.

CURRY: One degree. So it hasn't changed.

CURRY: The volume of ice has really—decreased now

BRANCACCIO: All right, two and a half degrees.

CURRY: Okay, 2.5. All right, we're getting into—nearly ice free arctic here.

BRANCACCIO: We've been heating the ice water—simulating global warming in the arctic—for seven and a half minutes now and the water temperature has only gone up gradually. No tipping point yet. But what about in the real world—out of the lab and into the ocean? We've been talking sea change as far away as the north pole but there is also sea change closer to civilization. A profound change in ocean chemistry is being caused by the biggest culprit in global warming—the carbon dioxide we create by burning fossil fuel. Remember those mussels we saw hanging around that underwater volcano? The mussels give clues to what carbon dioxide can do to marine life. Researchers say they've slowly been forced to adapt. This toxic environment has gradually left their shells thinner. And there's more.—the mussels actually eat away at their own shells from the inside in order to survive. The mussels have had thousands of years to adapt. But what happens when there is a quick change in the ocean's chemical balance? David Conover, the Director of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University, has been studying evidence of how the increasing levels of carbon dioxide are affecting marine life.

CONOVER: That carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean. And affects a chemical reaction—that increases the level of an acid called carbonic acid.

BRANCACCIO: Consider what's happening to coral. In the ocean, carbonic acid eats through some coral like vinegar through an eggshell. Coral get destroyed. And coral are a very big deal

CONOVER: Coral are the—they are what we call—habitat engineers, ecological engineers. The structure that they're building provides habitat for many other organisms. The fish—sponges—lots of invertebrates, shrimps and crabs that all live in these coral reef systems. And without those systems, we're really changing the way the oceans function as an ecosystem.

BRANCACCIO: Scientists say by mid-century—with a no change, business as usual approach—there'll be no place on earth that can sustain coral. Already vast coral reef systems are being devastated. Researchers found that in Australia's great barrier reef - the world's largest—the ability for coral to calcify, or form skeletons strong enough to sustain life, has declined by almost 15%. This spring, President Obama signed a new wilderness law that calls for the first coordinated federal program to assess ocean acidification. It's seen as a step toward helping oceans - but scientists admit our knowledge of climate change and the sea is at its infancy.

You'd think with the stakes this high, we would've been studying this for years. But I'm hearing from you the sense of urgency here has come relatively recently?

CONOVER: The urgency has come from the stronger and stronger scientific consensus that has emerged that in fact the warming that we are experiencing is due to human influences, and is occurring at rates—unlike what we've seen before. And certainly, the issue about CO2 and ocean acidification is—a very new urgency that we're dealing with.

BRANCACCIO: It's urgent because of the scale: some scientists worry a third to half of ocean species could be gone by the end of the century.

It's hard for people to fathom often. They look out at something as vast as the Atlantic Ocean, and they say, there's something that we as puny humans could've done that would fundamentally change something that's so much bigger than us? But you're saying, as a scientist—no, no, no, we have.

CURRY: The earth's climate system is huge. It's a huge beast and it's immovable. Or, seemingly immovable. It takes a lot to move it. It's like an enormous boulder that you try to push on. It takes a lot to push on it. But we've done it. We've actually pushed that boulder. And the thing is that, the climate system doesn't just bounce back anymore.

BRANCACCIO: Some scientists worry the climate might reach a tipping point...the kind of tipping point that has just hit our experiment on the hot plate at Wood's Hole. The beaker is now completely ice free.
I'd say nine degrees.

CURRY: Nine degrees at eight minutes. Yeah, now it's starting to behave exactly the way we thought it would.

BRANCACCIO: There's no more ice to absorb the heat that we were applying to the system. 16 1/2.

CURRY: 16 1/2, wow, temperature's rising much more quickly, now. Let's just wait another minute or two more and I think that the point will be very well established.

BRANCACCIO: It's 21 1/2. 24.

CURRY: We started off with a planet system with ice in it. Okay, and we just kept taking its temperature and it stayed very steady. And then, what, at two 1/2 minutes, we turned on the heat. Okay, and it's began to rise a little—little bit.

BRANCACCIO: Little slow.

CURRY: But still very, very slowly. And then we said at seven minutes that the ice was completely disappeared. And after that, the temperature just kept going up and up and up at a pretty steady rate.

BRANCACCIO: With no more ice to buffer the heat the temperature of the water shoots up quickly. Ruth Curry is worried disappearing ice is causing the sea to heat up faster and faster...

CURRY: We have to get our carbon dioxide emissions under control. Not only that, but we have to reduce the level of greenhouse gasses that are presently in the atmosphere. The problem is that we've already moved the climate system. And now the political system and the economic system, we have to move that in order to catch up with what we've done to the climate system.

BRANCACCIO: Oceans cover a good 70% of the earth's surface—just consider for a moment all the varied marine environments around the world. On our website, a marine conservation specialist takes a look at the future, and it's ...fascinating, to quote Spock. You can get there from our now homepage. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Obama's Border Fence

Ocean Tipping Point?

Audio: Stream | Download
Buy a DVD
Contact Us